Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Discrimination in Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

I've always told people that I'm not one of those readers who read books as a kid (I read magazines and played video games). My foray into an actual, meaty novel can be traced back to the debut of the original Jurassic Park film and me picking up Michael Crichton's book when I was in grade five. I wouldn't pick up another book of similar length until two years later, when I finally caught the fantasy bug and started purchasing whatever genre books was stocked by the local bookstore.

I wonder how I would have turned out had the bookstore's selection been different. It was filled with books by mass market authors, from Terry Brooks to David Eddings to Robert Jordan. Me and my friend Timothy made a deal back then that went along the lines of "I'll buy the Brooks books while you collect Eddings" and then we swapped books. In the end, our tastes diverged and we had our own opinions on which authors were good and which ones weren't.

One series that later caught my eye however was Dragonlance. Despite the prevalence of such titles in the bookstore, I hesitated picking up a book mainly because the core trilogy (The Dragonlance Chronicles) weren't available. Thankfully, another friend would later lend me the books and I was hooked. Now to someone who's never read Tolkien, Dragonlance was my entrypoint into the world of elves, dwarves, and halflings. This was fantasy at its most epic--or at least it seemed so to me at the time--especially if you needed three books to tell your story* (and even then, there were obviously some missing scenes--which is supposedly covered by Weis & Hickman's new Dragonlance trilogy).

Perhaps one thing that stood out to my teenage mind at the time was the discrimination present in the books. Right from the start, one of our protagonists, Tanis Half-Elven**, is subjected to prejudice as can be seen when he is asked about his half-elf heritage. He didn't really fit in Elvish communities nor in human ones saved for the times when he disguised his legacy.

Similarly, I would later realize how effective Dragonlance's dark elves are, especially when you take into consideration the history of its mother franchise, Dungeons & Dragons. In the game, morality is black and white (Detect Evil!) and under certain circumstances, murder is justified (I was killing an evil creature!). One trope are the Dark Elves and you can identify them (when they're not disguised) by the color of their skin. And yeah, they were always evil. Dragonlance puts a different spin to this concept because in the setting, being a dark elf is a social status. It has nothing to do with one's birth or skin color but rather your actions in society. Similarly, dark elves are subjected to a "civilized" form of punishment: exile (I mean in this day and age of capital punishment, when was the public satisfied with simply exiling someone for a crime?).

Another theme in the subsequent books was the rift among the elves: there are three elven tribes in Dragonlance and none of them get along with each other. There's a paradigm shift here because in Tolkien's cosmology, interspecies conflict (save for the humans and perhaps the orcs) is rare. Fantasy has a different take on racial discrimination because well, your characters are actually part of a different race (as defined by genetics and the ability to breed with each other***). But in Dragonlance, many of the races are prejudiced against their own kind: the Silvanesti elves dislike the Qualinesti elves who in turn loathe the Kagonesti. A closer reading shows that discrimination is not limited to the elves. The dwarves have their own biases (hill dwarves vs. mountain dwarves) and it has to be said that humans warring with each other is probably taken for granted (because that already happens in the real world).

When people tell me that fantasy isn't relevant, I get irked because my personal experiences show that while the setting and the characters might be fictional, the challenges that the protagonists face isn't. Discrimination in the real world is no better than the discrimination in the world of Dragonlance.

After Dragonlance, I eventually moved on to Forgotten Realms (which as far as continuity goes, has an easier learning curve on new readers). Now most of my experiences on Forgotten Realms is based on R. A. Salvatore's books (which is celebrating its 20th anniversary). To someone who's never read Moorcock or Donaldson, Drizzt seemed like a great anti-hero. I mean here you have a character whose racial heritage is actually evil. Before Drizzt, there was no such thing as a good dark elf. (And as far as D&D morality goes, killing a dark elf is a good act.) Unlike discrimination in Dragonlance wherein your ancestors probably made some wrong decisions but aren't innately evil, that's not the case with Drizzt: he comes from a race where evil acts are the norm****. He himself is the exception and everything else is an uphill battle as he strives to prove himself countless times to skeptics (a recurring theme in the series is redemption).

But the bigger charm of the Drizzt books for me were the monologues of Drizzt in between sections. Salvatore devotes a few pages to Drizzt's mindset and for me, this is the real gem of this media tie-in. You see over the course of several books, Drizzt undergoes a paradigm shift. Drizzt himself isn't any better than most people except for the fact that he manages to pinpoint his own subtle discriminations. In the beginning of the Drizzt's history, he worked with the belief that before he should trust other people, they should earn his trust first. Later on, he realizes the chicken-or-the-egg quandary this perpetuates and strives to change the world by doing the opposite: he should prove himself first to other people and trust them before he expects them to do the same for him.

In many ways, Drizzt conquers a more subtle form of discrimination--one that affects people irregardless of their race, gender, social station, or wealth. I mean I simply have to look around my own surroundings and while there isn't any apparent discrimination***** in the Philippines, the prejudices are still there: Filipinos vs the Filipino Chinese; rich vs the poor; educated vs the uneducated; city dwellers vs the provincial residents; Christians vs non-Christians; Muslims vs non-Muslims; Tagalog speakers vs the non-Tagalog speakers.

There are subtle currents of discrimination that go beyond skin color or sexual preference. I think Salvatore nails it down when it comes to his Drizzt character--our ability (or lack of it) to trust in other people and how we expect other people to serve us before we serve them. Now this belief or realization isn't groundbreaking by any means. But back when I was a teenager, I was having these philosophical musings without reading Aristotle or Kant or other sources of conventional wisdom. I was forming my own conclusions by reading a media tie-in novel--and fantasy at that.

*I've realized since then that more books does not necessarily mean better quality.

**In retrospect, the series might not have had the best naming conventions.

***Although that might make for an interesting fantasy/sci-fi story, when the "missing link" between one fantasy race and another is discovered.

****In the hands of a science fiction author, an angle that can be explored is the question "how does a creature in an immortal society develop morals?"

*****Subject to debate of course.

No comments: